Freeheld is a film with grand intentions and little to no idea what to do with them beyond the point of having them. It’s based on a true story, following Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) and her partner Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), as they struggled against the system for the right to have Laurel transfer her pension and benefits to Stacie when her lung cancer eventually got the better of her. Intermittently it is also a treatise on tolerance, a melancholic romance, an aggressively pointed political satire, and a maudlin melodrama, all concluding in an inspirational Miley Cyrus track. It is a film that means to display the ways in which discrimination is still fundamentally built into law and government procedure to this day, and this is admirable, but Freeheld also makes the crucial decision to dole out its various lessons with a bludgeon.
A decorated, intrepid detective, Laurel is still nevertheless forced to lead a double life. On the weekdays she and her loyal, years-long partner Dane (Michael Shannon) work the seedier beats in New Jersey. On the nights and weekends, Laurel goes to play volleyball in a different part of the state and meet women. She and Stacie meet cute, and eventually find their way together, but only via the tacit understanding that Laurel’s real life is her police work, and that her time with Stacie must therefore remain a secret.
But when Laurel is diagnosed with lung cancer, and it’s divulged that she won’t be able to transfer any of her benefits because of Stacie being female, they take to the courts. To the New Jersey Board of Chosen Freeholders, specifically, to argue that love is love regardless of the sexes involved and that rights are inherent for all, especially those who’ve done proud service for their communities. The Freeholders remain steadfast for their part, not even willing to respect the domestic partnership that Laurel and Stacie have as a legally viable relationship. (Again, with a bludgeon, although the film more than capably addresses the still-woeful inconsistencies in laws addressing the rights of domestic partners, let alone individuals in LGBT marriages from state to state.)
Freeheld comes from a passionate place, particularly when it lingers on the quieter moments between Moore and Page as a couple whose life was thrown into intensely public upheaval just as they were attempting to start it together, but it’s also a film in desperate need of a consistent tone or focus.
Of the many hats it wears, the most becoming for Freeheld is when director Peter Sollett lets the proceedings get a little nastier. The Board of Freeholders are cartoonishly evil, relishing in their ability to cite religion as a viable justification for repeatedly denying Laurel’s pleas for equality even as she begins to slowly waste away before them. Aside from Josh Charles as a member of the Board who’s the lone dissenting type with a working moral compass that this sort of film necessitates, it’s a David and Goliath scenario. Like much of the rest of the film, these sequences are both lensed and staged in the style of a particularly evocative TV movie, hitting their marks as efficiently as possible. At least in these scenes, however, Freeheld distinguishes itself as an angrier film, and one completely justified in that. The film is indignant about the hideous mistreatment administered to Laurel and Stacie, rightfully so, and occasionally that comes through.
More often, Freeheld races through its events as quickly as possible so as to work everything in, even when it makes little sense. (Plot points like an intolerant coworker at the department and a closeted friend of Laurel’s appear and disappear, wholly forgotten until it’s time for them to pay off.) It’s a disservice to the film’s game performances, particularly Page’s as a young woman in far over her head who just wanted to fall in love and build a life. There’s a sincerity to the moments when Stacie’s unwillingness to let go of their otherwise idealistic life together collides with Moore’s weary, agonized resignation that allows them to emerge above the scrum of Sollett’s many, many different approaches to the same film, but it’s only with struggle that they do.
Freeheld also makes a number of suspect choices, from the aforementioned bureaucratic devils to Steve Carell’s all-over-the-place turn as a savvy gay rights activist who understands that “political theater” is the best and fastest way to achieve results. It’s an interesting, honest take on modern activism in theory, but in practice it feels as though Carell wanders in from a completely different, far less somber film than this one to sassily banter with Shannon and start chants in various town hall meetings.
Curiously enough, Carrell’s character ends up feeling like Freeheld in microcosm: well-meaning, occasionally appealing, and wildly in need of some reining-in.